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Field Work
Richard S. Wright Jr.'s Blog

If you ever get a chance to visit the Software Bisque mother ship in Golden, CO you will see that there is a large roll off roof observatory in the parking lot. In addition more than one of the "Brothers Bisque" maintain off site observatories as well. As for me working in Florida, I have two options; my back yard, and my dark sky observatory site in South Florida. Located at the sweet spot between Orlando and Miami and nestled among an IDAS-recognized state park and a large number of dairy and sod farms I have a small corner leased on some private property with a few other devoted astro-imagers. We call this Star Dust Ranch, but sometimes I call this the Software Bisque South field office because I can go down there and stay not just the night, but days at a time. I have Internet, and a decent amount of gear to play with... I mean WORK on. I keep a few things down there, mostly "camping" gear, and bring scopes and mounts for a week at a time or a weekend here and there.

Last week I actually spent seven days down there after being home a little bit from the Nightfall star party. My wife comes along too and it turns out if the weather isn't hot and she has a spacious tent ("Stately Wright Manner"), she'd be good to go, too. Last week I had three Paramount mounts, several optics, and a box full of cameras and other gear I wanted to work on without the distractions of home, and the limit of a small light polluted backyard (this took two cars to haul back and forth). I have my own "office" as well, so I can write code all day/night if I need to. So, what do I "work" on when I'm not helping people on the forum? Here's a sneak peek at some R&D projects and other soon to be released updates coming to a daily build soon that I worked on last week:

1. A new ATIK X2 plugin for Windows and Mac. ATIK has revamped their SDK (Software Development Kit) so that instead of connecting directly to a low level driver, TheSkyX can connect to a service running on the computer via sockets. What this means is if the service crashes for some reason, it doesn't bring down TheSkyX (at least in theory). There's been some refactoring of the existing plug-in to account for this, and support for the internal filter wheel on the ATIK One is all wrapped up. An ATIK engineer worked with me too on the finer points of what features needed to be exposed and which were legacy (there does not need to be a checkbox for every single option exposed in the SDK), and now the Windows and Mac (and eventually Linux, et. al) are unified under the same code. You can also now use more than one ATIK camera at a time!

2. QHY has been a "Problem Child" for a while. For some time our competitors have had a leg up on us because they were using an older, more stable SDK. We (um... I), opted to jump on board with a brand new SDK and it's taken quite a while to get the bugs worked out. One of the biggest headaches was that there was no way for a single program (process) to control more than one camera. So, TheSkyX could image or guide with a QHY camera, but not both at the same time. This was kind of a deal breaker for me...  There were also some issues with their guide cameras that honestly, just did not meet my own standard for usability and stability (this was all with the new SDK mind you). Lee, the developer at QHY and I setup a system were we could both share the source for the X2 plug-in, he has a running copy of TheSkyX, and we'd made some tremendous progress. Coding wise, there were still a few loose ends we wrapped up last week, plus I'm doing some nightly runs using a QHY 10 and different QHY guide cameras. I used both Direct Guide, and the relays (I have to make sure that works too - everybody doesn't have a Paramount where they can use Direct Guide) to shoot for many hours. And I'm doing it on BOTH Windows and Mac. So yes... Finally, QHY is coming to the Mac! 

3. ZWO cameras will be fully supported on both Linux and Raspberry Pi. ZWO deserves almost all the credit for this. They have a very responsive and proactive engineering team.

4. Support across the board for the Officina Stellare RotoFocuser. There's probably not a huge out cry for this, but I was sent one so that I could do the plug-in, and it's been LONG over due, and it's working great with TheSkyX now.

Magic Preview4. TPoint and improved usability on iOS! This is where "using the product" in real conditions is a real requirement. I have TPoint all wired up, and the math works. Pointing with a high power eyepiece is spectacular. However, I found it to be difficult to use as I have big fat clumsy fingers and thumbs, so there's some last tweaks to the GUI coming, and then a great big Christmas present for Paramount owners with Wi-Fi who use their mounts for visual observing. It's also great for using a DSLR with just an iPad, or doing lunar/solar work with a video camera, etc.

5. Field and example data is essential for testing a new screen stretch I've been working on for a while. This is a "teaser trailer", so not "soon", but "not long either"... we'll have a new screen stretch for TheSkyX, and I'm working on color in real color previews from DSLR's and other OSC color cameras. No, I don't need beta testers<g>, this is just time consuming and it's the kind of thing you can't do all at once. Sometimes if you really want to shine (and I do), you have to work for a bit, and then put it down. Then go back.. and go "ah ha!". Getting it to work across a wide range of image depths is tricky, but I'm convinced it can be done.

Finally on Saturday when I felt less compelled to do "real work", I cleaned the worm gears and re-greased the MX+, and on Sunday the ME II. This is something we recommend you do on your Paramount every year or so, and I was well over due. I get a lot of emails (instead of forum posts, which is likely to actually get quicker responses...) about mount problems. If people only knew how poor a mechanical engineer I actually am. Software people.... SOFT... WARE... LOL. I wrote a book once, and I often tell people experts don't write books, you become an expert by writing a book. The school of hard knocks is a rough place to learn. Here's two hard lessons I learned this weekend that may surprise you:

1. I've been fighting with a large RC as I could never get sharp focus. I've collimated it 100 times, and I've gotten good sample images when testing, but when I go to use it, my FWHM is twice if not more what it should be compared to neighboring systems. Turns out I had cranked up the mirror heaters too much. A newbie mistake right? No one is above the law of thermodynamics! Well, I finally tried the star test/collimation refinement at the same time I also had the mirror heaters on, and the "flames" coming off the donut star image looked like I could have cooked a hot dog on it! Once the mirrors cooled off, I got great images, in the moonlight of course. So... next time someone thinks they've made some idiotic mistake on the forum and it has taken weeks to figure out what was wrong. Take heart... even we learn that way sometimes!

2. I broke the company car. Of course one of the benefits of my job is I have all three Paramount GEMS to work with, and Steve Bisque's cell phone number... I was pretty high on myself after successfully re-greasing the MYT a couple weeks ago, and the MX+ the pervious day, I was ready to do the ME II. First, I let the declination homing sensor fall inside the mount. The video we posted on how to do this tells you how to NOT do this, but sometimes I'm not so bright. VERY difficult to fish out and get routed correctly, and poor Steve got blow by blow pictures of my panic on a Sunday afternoon (and this is why no one else has his cell phone number!). Finally sorted out, I did the first home in preparation for exercising the mount to work the grease in. I watched and listened as the RA axis found it's spot and beeped. The declination axis however... kept on turning... I watched for a second and a voice in my head in the accent of my home town said, "well that ain't right...". Sure enough it wound all the way around until it reached the stop and then sounded the alarm. I took the dec housing off and inspected the cable. Must be on backwards... nope. Take the housing off again. Maybe it wasn't seated properly... oh, this is when the NEXT "don't do this" in the video occurred, and I dropped one of the screws inside the mount. I probably removed and reattached the housing four times or more before I looked at something other than the connector for the homing sensor when I saw a badly crimped ribbon cable. I must have pinched it between the housings when I put the cover on the first time. Six worm blocks cleaned and re-greased... is 5 out of 6 not bad?

It's probably a good thing I can write code.

Why would I share two really embarrassingly stupid stories about myself? A lot of people I meet think I'm an expert, that there's some talent to this and that if they don't catch on and excel immediately then there is something wrong. Nope. For the same reason my Facebook friends can still find six year old astrophotography images of mine that look worse than their first try. If anyone takes to this quickly and naturally, it's likely because something else in their life that they've mastered has a high degree of skill overlap. A good book on this topic is "Talent is Overrated"; the premise of which is that people we think are talented are really just obsessed... it's a good argument too, and is probably true at least 99% of the time. You have to be willing to fail, and do stupid things, and go home tired and defeated if you ever want to master anything. We are doing the best we can here to make astrophotography as easy as possible, but we are still a long way from the ease of use of a point and shoot camera.

Basically... hang in there. We have those days too.


Posted 11-07-2016 2:19 PM by Richard Wright


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